Opinion: Why Casey Anthony 'Got Off,' and Why it Matters

Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - 07:31 AM

Casey Anthony listens to testimony during her murder trial at the Orange County Courthouse on June 30, 2011 in Orlando, Florida. (Red Huber-Pool/Getty)

Casey Anthony was acquitted yesterday of all but the least serious charges against her. Had she been convicted of the first-degree murder of her two-year-old daughter, Caylee, she faced a possible death sentence in Florida. Instead, she is likely to be sentenced to credit for time served, at tomorrow’s sentencing hearing and to be free, by week’s end.

Millions of Americans followed the Casey Anthony trial. Many millions more say it was a complete waste of time and criticize the media for the attention and expense given to coverage of the case. One poster to the Casey Anthony Twitter feed sarcastically quipped: "So glad the media is covering this #CaseyAnthony case because the problems of the middle class are just too boring to care about." Still, I suspect a large portion of the population, claims it hasn’t been following the case, but secretly has, logging into the Twitter feed late at night, or watching Nancy Grace when no one else is watching them.

The truth is, trials have always been a source of entertainment in this country. From colonial times to the present, trials have provided the public with a source for ritual and drama. Before the dawn of mass communication, the courthouse provided one of the few diversions available.

In 1770, John Adams defended eight British soldiers and their captain, charged with killing five Massachusetts men, in what was quickly dubbed the Boston Massacre Case. The year was 1770 and no one else would take the case. Adams knew he was out of step with the popular outrage and feared for his family’s safety. Still he did not hesitate, firm in the belief that no man in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. Adams had to cut through the popular sentiment – to win a verdict of Not Guilty for six of the men (two were convicted of manslaughter).

Neither the U.S. Constitution nor contemporaneous documents indicate that the Founders anticipated a conflict between the right to a fair trial and the guarantee of the freedom of the press to cover a case. At the same time, they were clearly aware of the dilemma. And that is why, as riveting as they may be as theater, in our system, trials are the constitutional means for preserving public order when one citizen violates the rights of others citizens or the public at large.

Criminal trials, in particular, provide protection for the rights of the criminal defendant. Our constitution balances the tension between the public’s desire for retribution against the greater societal goal of justice. The trial is the defendant shield against the societal sword of revenge.

So, the fair trial/free press debate, which was highlighted again by the Casey Anthony trial, is as old as the republic and the dilemma has long history: The robbery and murder trial of Sacco and Vanzetti (1920), the so-called Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping Trial” (1935), the trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard for the murder of his wife (1954), which inspired the television series and movie The Fugitive, the McMartin Preschool Abuse Trials (1987-1990) and of course, the OJ Simpson murder trial (1995).

In modern America, we continue, through the news media, and now Twitter, Facebook and other social networking sites, to converge on the courthouse for information, enlightenment, and entertainment. Lawyers and judges have so often excoriated the “circus-like” environment at highly publicized trials that the expression has become a common catchphrase for trial reporters.

After the verdict in yesterday, defense attorney Cheney Mason (whom I have interviewed in connection with other cases), stepped to the microphone:

"I hope that this is a lesson to those of you who indulged in media assassination for three years," he said. "Bias and prejudice and incompetent 'talking heads' saying what would be … Here he took a dramatic pause and then continued: "I'm disgusted by [what] some of the lawyers that have done this. I can tell you that my colleagues from coast to coast and border to border have condemned this whole process of lawyers getting on television and talking about cases they don't know a damn thing about."

In a free country, the right of press access to a trial and our right to cover that trial, as we see fit, has been firmly established by the U.S. Supreme Court. It falls within the right of freedom of the press. But we in the media have an awesome responsibility, with every word we speak, to get it right, to honor the process – not to corrupt it. In my view, this burden falls especially hard on those of us who are lawyers but who have chose to make a career in journalism; presumably we have a greater understanding of the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and the delicate balance at play inside a criminal courtroom.

As for the verdicts in the Casey Anthony trial, the OJ Simpson trial or any other case in which the public may be dissatisfied, I commend you the greatest line from John Adam’s closing argument in the Boston Massacre case:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

The “dictates of our passion” should never determine the outcome of a criminal case - not in a free country, and certainly not under our constitutional system of justice.

Jami Floyd is an attorney, broadcast journalist and legal analyst for cable and network news, and is a frequent contributor to WNYC Radio. She is former advisor in the Clinton administration and served as a surrogate for the Obama campaign on legal and domestic policy issues. You can follow her on twitter.


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Comments [22]

teresa from wash dc

do you mean "Nancy Grace's comments" Its not mary grace

Jul. 08 2011 04:28 PM
Bruce Armstrong from Flushing

Mark M --
"Can manslaughter only happen to someone who is alive??????"

Um, yes. It can only happen to someone who's alive. I don't know what point you're trying to make there.

She was charged with premeditated murder, not with manslaughter or even second degree murder, which they might have been able to get a conviction on. Put the blame on the prosecution for being so eager to execute someone that they gambled away any realistic chance of a conviction. She's not walking because of the jury.

Jul. 08 2011 10:52 AM
Mark M.

Wasn't the defense's position on what happened a crime?

1) Neglect of a child, (died under watch)

2) Staged a fake crime scene to put the blame on someone else

i would think if a child died under my care, and I initially tried to cover it up, and put masking tape ver her mouth, put the body in a bag for human nature to eat up. THAT SHOULD BE A CRIME. Can manslaughter only happen to someone who is alive??????

Jul. 07 2011 02:31 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Jami -

You are right about the “dictates of our passion” but what about logic? I suggest that it is 'the passions' in the form of prejudices, stereotypes and bigotry that would have made this case a 'slam dunk' if we were talking about Rashida Anthony rather than a relatively telegenic white woman.
The prosecutors are more often the benefactors of the 'dictates of our passion' than the defense, using societal pre-judgements to 'fill in the blanks' on most jury presentations.

Imagine how many convicts would now be free if their juries were as rational as the one in this case.

Jul. 07 2011 09:29 AM
Bruce Armstrong from Flushing

Stephen, from the Wikipedia article on the death of the child:

"On August 11, 12, and 13, 2008, tips of a suspicious object found in a forested area near the Anthony residence were called in to police by a meter reader, Roy Kronk. However, a search was not conducted at that time. After another report from the same man on December 11, 2008, human remains were found in a plastic bag. "

That's the police incompetence I'm referring to. They let FOUR MONTHS go by before checking out a repeated tip about possible remains near the main suspect's home.

Obviously, Anthony is culpable for not reporting her child missing. But was she charged with that? Is it even a crime in Florida, or anywhere? I don't know; it should be, with stiff prison sentences attached. But the fact that a suspect benefits from an absence of evidence doesn't magically recreate the evidence that isn't there.

Jul. 06 2011 08:35 PM

Bruce Armstrong from Flushing

sorry buddy. its time to change the constitution and all the laws surrounding trials. Victims of murder do not get justice because of laws that were meant to protect us from an older legal system that was based on class warfare (english). In the modern age we are to concerned with the rights of the "accused" and forget that justice has to be balanced.

Casey Anthony's story about how Caylee died and the cover up makes zero sense. Criminals don't want to get caught and lie. She fits the model of a liar. Her credibility is zero. Do we really need to prove HOW she killed Caylee?

The time has come for change.

Jul. 06 2011 03:27 PM
Stephen Mills from Houston, Tx

"Why not look at the failures of the police to find the girl's body in time for evidence to be obtainable..."

By her own admission through her lawyer in opening statements that failure lies with the defendant Casey Anthony

If it was an accident and she reported it we would have the forensic evidence to sustain that report - should it be true. Should it not be true, well that might be a reason not to report it.

Jul. 06 2011 03:22 PM
Nicole B from Newton Kansas

THE JURY DID NOT GET IT RIGHT!! I am soo tired of hearing that. We are not just talking about the 1st degree murder charge, we are talking about all of the charges that were dropped. According to the theory of the defense she was undeniably guilty of neglect! I despise this woman and i wouldnt have found her guilty of 1st degree murder, as much as i would like to. However, what is the definition of neglect? Is it not neglectful to not be watching your child while she "accidentally drowned"? Is it not neglectful to toss out your child's body like trash, or at least willing allow someone else to do that for you? Wtf is neglect?! Not keeping your kid clean all the time and letting them have candy and pop for breakfast? Yeah America characterizes those things as neglect...but apparently its ok if something far more serious claims the life of a child and their body is disregarded in the woods! Anyhow, I personally do not believe that it was an accident, I am just stating that if that was the case, due to the theory of the defense, Casey outright confessed to nothing less than neglect. Come on people! You're about as ignorant as the jury that found her innocent.

Jul. 06 2011 01:28 PM
Bruce Armstrong from Flushing

"illfg" -- that is just appalling. Be serious.

"There is no doubt that Casey knows how Caylee died."
What's your evidence for that? And that's not what she was charged with.

"There is no doubt that she handled the death of her daughter in a manner inconsistent with how a mother who loves their child and found her daughter dead by accidental drowning would handle herself."

I'm sorry, I didn't realize she was being tried -- with the death penalty hanging over her -- for being a lousy mom.

"A reasonable conclusion can be made that Casey either caused the death of her child or had someone else cause the death of her child. Normal people do not act this way. The lack of any remorse or concern is a sign of a sociopath."

Wow -- "Normal people do not act this way."
The way you assert she acted is assuming your "reasonable conclusion" that she caused the death of the child (which is even what she was charged with -- she was charged with murder, not simply "causing the death.") This is called "begging the question" and carries your "argument" way out of the bounds of reason-based discourse: she's guilty because she's a sociopath, and you know she's a sociopath because you "know" she's guilty.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt" shouldn't mean that all i's are dotted and all t's are crossed.

Nobody has argued that it should mean that. That's not an excuse for building a prosecution on pure speculation, and whining when a jury actually finds a reasonable doubt, when there was no reasonable case made to begin with.

"Common sense easily shows that Casey is responsible for her daughter's death."
Well, then. I guess we should dispense with trials altogether. Save a lot of money.

"Although there really wasn't enough evidence to conclusively proved the First Degree charge, Manslaughter, child endangerment, and other charges, reasonably exist."

Make up your mind. Are you claiming the jury got it wrong on the murder charge, or got it right?

"As humans, we have the ability to draw conclusions from inferences."
If those -- often flawed, wouldn't you admit? -- inferences aren't frequently tested against known facts, you have a prescription for ritual murder (in the case of the death penalty) not justice.

"There have been convictions with less evidence."

Yes, and even executions. There have also been acquittals with far, far more evidence. So what?

"This is a widespread failure of our Judicial System. "

Why not look at the failures of the police to find the girl's body in time for evidence to be obtainable, and the failure of the prosecutors to set realistic objectives in the case, instead of faulting the jury system -- which no one has ever asserted is magically able to arrive at the "right" conclusion.

Jul. 06 2011 12:35 PM
NABNYC from SoCal

I suspect the main reason the public was watching this trial was because it combined the favorite pasttimes of much of the public, and required no energy from them. They could just sit on the sofa and watch TV all day. Then they could post on facebook in an emotional manner, cathartic, proclaim themselves great Christians, compassionate human beings, only demanding justice, all the while cheering for the state-sponsored murder of a 25-year-old. Without any real evidence that the 25 year old had done anything to cause the death of this child.

Most people could assume the defendant, as the custodial parent in possession of the child, is responsible for the death, perhaps through negligence, perhaps through reckless disregard of the life of the child. She could have left the child in a hot car, for example. But that is a far cry from the excessive over-charging by the D.A. and the bizarre story they invented to argue that the defendant killed the 2 old intentionally, with malice and premeditation, because the child was getting older and would soon rat out mommy to grandma when mommy went out clubbing. What a bizarre theory. Completely unsubstantiated.

The D.A. overcharged, probably because somebody in that office has political ambitions. They've got a state full of ignorant redneck crackers who believe any single woman who goes out to nightclubs is a whore (as one person said on FB) and god wants her to be killed.

I'm glad the prosecution failed. I'm thinking maybe if more juries rejected death penalty cases, maybe the prosecution would stop seeking it and we could get back to using the criminal courts for a legitimate purpose: to punish people for the crimes they actually committed, if any, instead of a vehicle to overcharge crimes with the intent of imprisoning people for life or murdering them to feed the public's bloodlust.

I wonder how many of the people who watched this trial on TV are unemployed and broke? Looking to blame someone. Too bad they don't take their demands to the government instead of cheering for the death of their neighbors.

Jul. 06 2011 12:31 PM

"beyond a reasonable doubt".

There is no doubt that Casey knows how Caylee died. There is no doubt that she handled the death of her daughter in a manner inconsistent with how a mother who loves their child and found her daughter dead by accidental drowning would handle herself. A reasonable conclusion can be made that Casey either caused the death of her child or had someone else cause the death of her child. Normal people do not act this way. The lack of any remorse or concern is a sign of a sociopath.

"Beyond a reasonable doubt" shouldn't mean that all i's are dotted and all t's are crossed. In life, we do not always get those kinds of conclusions. When murders are committed, evidence doesn't unfold like a Matlock or Law & Order case.

Common sense easily shows that Casey is responsible for her daughter's death. Although there really wasn't enough evidence to conclusively proved the First Degree charge, Manslaughter, child endangerment, and other charges, reasonably exist.

The standard for "beyond reasonable doubt" should not mean charges are completely proven. As humans, we have the ability to draw conclusions from inferences. If evidence has to be foolproof to get a conviction, then why have humans sit on a jury? The evidence would speak for itself. There have been convictions with less evidence.

This is a widespread failure of our Judicial System.

Jul. 06 2011 12:00 PM
Linda from New York

Great article, Jamie! Your commentary overall, on Brian Lehrer and MSNBC in general, has been reasoned, fair-minded, and terrific.

I paid no attention to the Casey Anthony case until the last few days of the trial, when I began watching it on TV. What struck me, knowing almost nothing about who did what, or the drift of public reaction, was the fact that the lead defense lawyer was Hispanic, and (as I discovered watching him and his team embrace after the verdict was read) it appears that many on his team were Hispanic too--whereas the prosecution team seemed to be largely (if not entirely? white). The phrase "white mischief" kept occurring to me.

My comments may be completely off-course, but I wondered if and how ethnicity played a role in the trial? Mr. Baez, the attorney, seemed to acknowledge it when, in his speech following the verdict, he switched to speaking in Spanish at one point--seeming to acknowledge that the trial at least to some extent had a Hispanic following. It also seemed to me that Casey Anthony allied herself with this minority group. Did ethnicity play a role in the verdict? Did the ethnic makeup of the jury play a role? Still knowing little of the politics of the case, I got the feeling that the underdog won.

Jul. 06 2011 11:25 AM
Bruce Armstrong from Flushing

Someone on Facebook summarized why she was "disappointed" with the verdict:
"She didn't report her 2 year old missing for a month, and then grandma finally reported her missing. During that month, the mom went on a partying/shopping spree, shacked up with a new boyfriend, and then said the kid had been kidnapped by an imaginary nanny. Her defense was accidental drowning after which she dumped the body in the woods. [not exactly the defense, but never mind]

None of which actually speaks to the circumstances of the death. They don't even know what the cause of death WAS. All circumstantial, emotion-based evidence, and none establishing surety beyond a reasonable doubt. She wasn't on trial for being a callous idiot, she was on trial for murder. And her life was at stake. Only a police state would execute someone on that "evidence."
I believe that either she, or someone in her family, or someone close to the family, killed the child. But the prosecution offered no evidence the death wasn't accidental, or that the mother was more likely to have committed the act than anyone else.

So yes, those of you insisting the jury made the wrong decision are basing this on blinkered emotion, not on reason and law, sorry.

Jul. 06 2011 11:10 AM
Seth from Upper West Side

Doesn't anyone find it disgusting how much Americans love viewing other people's misery for their own entertainment?! It's ghoulish.

This poor kid is dead. That's all that matters.

Jul. 06 2011 10:39 AM
Carl Ian Schwartz from Paterson, New Jersey

I think that Mary Grace's "comment" was beyond responsible journalism and lapsed into a personal judgment. I did NOT watch the coverage and could care less--but after TV-OJ I realized that such coverage was a weapon of mass distraction from more important issues.

By the way, I feel that what happened to Dominique Strauss-Kahn as the same sort of crap. The complaining witness turned out to be questionable--and her libel lawsuit is ridiculous as people do not know her name. However, they do know the content of her telephone call to a confederate, where her motivation (for money) came out.

Jul. 06 2011 10:38 AM
Dennis from New York, NY

This is a great article Jami. And as always you present an intelligent, thoughtful, fair and balanced view. However, I am not so sure that this Jury looked or took the time to sift through all the "facts" in evidence in this case. I believe the Jurors in the OJ Simpson case also did not sort through and examine all the "facts" in evidence in that case either. I think there is such thing as jury nullification which should be criminal. I also believe is what is TRULY missing from modern day jurisprudence is good old COMMON SENSE!!!

Jul. 06 2011 10:34 AM
Al from Montreal

I believe that Caylee may have died from an overdose of Chloroform or/heat exhaustion. Casey panicked because of fear of mother and/or father. She concocted the kidnapping and Zannie, hence the "Duck Tape"
Duck Tape placed after death. This tape will not stick to anything when wet and a child of almost three could easily remove same because of the absence of hair. Does not stick well to skin.

Jul. 06 2011 10:14 AM
Pat from Boston

Bravo Jami!

Jul. 06 2011 10:08 AM

There is little doubt that Casey killed Caylee, however she didn't murder her.
No cause of death, no place of death, no time of death, no motive and cannot place Casey at the scene, therfore, no death penalty.
The jury got it right!

Jul. 06 2011 10:03 AM
Orlando girl

Jackie, the defense doesn't have to present any facts - none. You should know that if you "watched the trial from beginning to end." A verdict of Not Guilty does not mean innocent. Just that the State did not present enough evidence to prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt. I believe in my heart she's guilty, of something, for sure. Too bad it wasn't proven.

Jul. 06 2011 09:29 AM
jackie from west palm beach, fl

I completely agree with the other commenter. Your article is pompous. I watched the trial from beginning to end and I don't remember seeing many cold hard facts from the side of the defense. That being said, I would never assume that just because someone disagrees with the verdict, they have no respect for our justice system and form their opinions on emotion alone ignoring the evidence and facts. That's insulting to some extremely intelligent people.

Jul. 06 2011 09:04 AM
Stephen Mills from Houston, TX

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

So who's disputing that? Are you implying that anyone who disagrees with the O.J. and Casey Anthony verdicts must be deciding the cases on emotion??? How very presumptuous and arrogant is that.

Perhaps some of us actually agree that facts should rule the day and still come to a different conclusion than the jurors.

This was a very presumptuous article. It completely dismisses reasonable people who disagree with the outcome.

Jul. 06 2011 08:04 AM

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